Walking, it seems, is now a tested method for coming up with creative ideas. It probably doesn’t surprise you that standing up and stretching your legs and getting some aerobic activity to move your blood around might help your brain to conjure up more options. But now there’s research from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education to back up what was up until now intuitive or anecdotal: Taking a walk can yield more ideas than sitting in your chair thinking.
It’s not that we don’t have a design for the workshop. Nor is it that we’re keen to keep our participants in the dark. Our experience is that no published agenda survives human contact. So as soon as there are people introduced to the process, things change, slow down, speed up, go a different direction. Our workshops need to be flexible so that we can react to the decisions participants make along the way. Our job is to facilitate what is happening, not necessarily to facilitate what will happen.
The team of mentors – there can between three to five at an Ideas Lab – usually represents a range of different academic perspectives that have some bearing on the question that’s central to the event. Their expertise is essential, but an equally important attribute for a mentor is to be ambitious about the science, intensely curious about the topic of the workshop, and adept at giving feedback, without being directive. This is the critical bit: they have to stay neutral and avoid getting tangled up in the ideas or too engaged in the participant groups.
A Sandpit or an Ideas Lab collects academics from a range of disciplines and mix them around, working in groups to solve a problem or develop ideas for research. It smacks of just what an extravert will love: conversations with strangers, moving chairs a lot, making presentations in front of a group. But just the idea of being in a meeting room with 25 other people for five days can be enough to discourage an introvert from applying to attend, let alone the idea of having to interact with a large group all week.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for this approach. We’ve all had the experience of waking up and feeling refreshed, maybe with a clearer idea of what to do, or at least better prepared to make a complex decision. There are dozens of stories of eureka moments, incidents when a someone woke up after (or during) a good night’s sleep with an answer that had been elusive, an idea for an experiment, a genius melody, or some brilliant new idea that simply popped into their mind.
We often refer to Post-it notes as portable recording devices, just to put in perspective why we stick to using them. It’s one of the easiest, fastest ways to get a group of people to put their thoughts together and then sort them out, collectively. Quickly, a group can organize a wall of hundreds of Post-it notes, revealing major themes but keeping the granularity intact within the resulting categories.